Leaving Your First Love
American Journal of Biblical Theology,
The Apostle John wrote this epistle to the churches in the region around Ephesus in the final years of his life, doing so following his exile on the island of Patmos, in response to a need among the congregations for encouragement and direction. There were many who were teaching their own versions of theology that were quite contradictory to the gospel message, redefining the person of Jesus Christ and what it means to be a Christian. In the previous chapter of this letter John helped his readers to recognize the false teachers and antichrists in their midst, reject their authority and message, and return to the gospel that they were originally taught.
John has described a substantive difference between those who are submitted to the world and those who are submitted to the LORD, noting that those who love the LORD demonstrate an unction, or anointing of the Holy Spirit: set apart from the world with a purpose that intimately engages the work of the Holy Spirit in the heart of the believer. The differences in the character of one who is lost and one who has placed their faith and trust in God are not as much a factor of what we have done, but what God has done in our lives. Following John’s discussion on recognizing heresy, he reminds us of some of the blessings of living in submission to the truth.
1 John 3:1a. Behold, what manner of love the Father hath bestowed upon us, that we should be called the sons of God:
Though some translations omit it, the first word that John uses is instructive. Translated as “behold” or “see” it is a very emphatic imperative that separates the two passages of text. It carries the idea that, in view of that has just been said, one can marvel at what is about to be said. Though the word is highly overused, in the modern vernacular one might say, “This is awesome!”
John then describes some of the nature of God’s love for those who have placed their faith in Him. Translated as “bestowed,” the word is also rendered as “given” and “lavished.” The idea is that the love that God has given to the faithful is lavished on them. John had a real appreciation for the kind of love that God has for the faithful that they would be called “sons of God.” If we have an insufficient appreciation for the glory of God, we might not be so impressed. However, all people suffer from a common malady: a natural inability to really comprehend the glory of God. There is simply nothing in this universe to use as a reference to measure the power and glory of God. How can we resolve the impossibility that the God of such glory and power would reach down through eternity, through the vastness of this universe, to have a father-son relationship with each individual of faith?
Putting this concept into perspective could be challenging. One can probably remember their early, formative, years when the most popular guy or girl in the school was unapproachable, and you marveled at the thought that the individual would like to have a personal relationship with you. In adult life, we might set our sights a little higher and think of the same metaphor with one who is rich and famous, or one of the most powerful people in the world: these are unapproachable, and to consider having a personal relationship with them is beyond reason. Yet, the God of creation, the God of this universe is reaching to every one of us right now and asking for “our permission” to have a personal relationship with Him.
This concept alone should cause us to fall on our knees in praise, adoration, and submission to the LORD. Yet, why do we fail to do this? Why do we take our relationship with God for granted? For many, such a relationship is not even something to be desired. The answer is simple: ignorance.
1 John 3:1b. therefore the world knoweth us not, because it knew him not.
Since it is difficult even for those who have placed their trust in God to understand His glory, even when the Holy Spirit informs our learning, those who do not have faith lack that anointing, and do not know Him. Since they do not know God, they cannot know what it is to be a child of God.
However, ignorance is something that is easily overcome by learning. Many have never heard the gospel communicated in a way that they can understand. We often think of those who are ignorant of the gospel as those who live in other areas of the world, or in third-world countries. The truth is, that same ignorance is shared by your next-door neighbor who is not a Christian. Those who work to marginalize, denigrate, or persecute Christians are universally ignorant of the gospel message.
There is a disconnect between those who have the gospel to share, and those who need it. The gospel is often preached from our church pulpits to those who already know the gospel. Such preaching is necessary and edifying, but is not heard by those outside the walls. The same is true for the audiences of televangelists. The only way people outside of the pulpit will hear the gospel is from the lips and lives of faithful Christians. Very few Christians are excited enough about their status as a child of God to share their knowledge with others. We often do not act like we are children of God, as we compromise the voracity of our witness to those around us.
John simply reminds the faithful that they are sons of God, and an appreciation of what this means can serve to bring down the barriers that prevent us from living like children of God.
1 John 3:2. Beloved, now are we the sons of God, and it doth not yet appear what we shall be: but we know that, when he shall appear, we shall be like him; for we shall see him as he is.
So, what is it like to be a son of God? John starts by assuring the faithful of the surety of their eternal salvation. It is probably axiomatic that believers are curious about what our bodies will be like in the resurrection. We have heard speculations and arguments that often attempt to answer these questions by observing the nature of the risen Christ. However, John simply states that “it doth not yet appear,” or that we simply do not currently know. However, John can state confidently that we will meet Jesus in the resurrection, and when we do, we will be like Him, we will recognize Him, and will “see Him” as He is. The idea is that, when we do finally see Jesus, we will be with Him and know Him simply through observation.
John inserts this statement at this point as a bridge between one’s understanding of their status as a child of God, and how one should live as a child of God. When we realize the glory of God, His love that brings us to Him, and His provision for us for eternity, how can we not seek to live a life that demonstrates both an appreciation for what God has done, and seeks to live in a manner consistent with that gift?
1 John 3:3. And every man that hath this hope in him purifieth himself, even as he is pure.
A child is in relationship with His father, is subject to His father, and when embraced in a love-based relationship, seeks to honor and obey the father. John describes the conduct of such a life as one of purification. When we enter into the relationship with God, we bring in all of the baggage of sinful attitudes, thoughts, and actions that characterized our life apart from God. As we grow in spiritual maturity, we begin to shed much of that baggage as it no longer holds such an attraction for us when it is illuminated by the Holy Spirit. Continued maturity in Christ brings continued purification as one draws closer and closer to God, and further from the dark influences of the world. John does not imply that this journey will culminate in our perfection. He makes no mention that the person of faith will be pure as God is pure. He simply states that the spiritual fruit of a Christian will lead them through the process of purification as one sheds old sins like old, dirty clothes.
1 John 3:4. Whosoever committeth sin transgresseth also the law: for sin is the transgression of the law.
As we venture into these verses, it may be instructive to be reminded that the Greek New Testament manuscripts contain at least eight different words that are rendered “sin” in the English versions. Their ranges of meaning are important in our understanding of this passage. If the same word is applied throughout, we can come up with doctrines that are contrary to the overall biblical narrative. The original Greek New Testament manuscripts include:
Hamartia – missing the mark. The idea is that one desires to be obedient, but fails in the attempt.
Hettema – Diminishing that which should have been given full measure.
Paraptoma – Falling when one should have stood.
Agnoeema – Ignorance when one should have known.
Parakoe – To refuse to hear and heed God’s Word.
Parabasis – To intentionally cross the line.
Anomia, Paranomia – Willfully breaking the laws that have been set down.
Just as there are different words for sin, there are different shades of meaning that are presented in the Greek grammar. For example, hamartia can range from a simple mistake to a continual lifestyle. Both ends of this spectrum of meanings are utilized in the following verses.
John begins his discussion on the nature of sin in the life of the faithful by referring to hamartia, or missing the mark. The term comes from Greek athletic games where the contestant is attempting to throw an object at a target. A modern example might be the game of darts where one attempts, but rarely, strikes the “bull’s eye,” the center of the target. The point is simple: the contestant is aware of the target, is intentionally seeking to make a perfect score, but despite every effort, misses the center of the target.
When applied to faith, the word refers to an individual who seeks to live a faithful life, but falls short of perfection, despite their efforts. Perfection for a person of faith is impossible, necessitating the loving Grace of God who promises complete and unconditional forgiveness for missing the mark.
This is quite different from those who are not people of faith, people who reject a relationship with God. These are not living a life that seeks obedience to the LORD, so the application of hamartia is not applicable. These are not making any effort to aim the darts at the dartboard (anomia), those who choose to aim at other targets (parabasis), or those who simply reject God (agnoeema).
Understanding this, John is stating that it is literally impossible for us to keep the law, since missing the mark is to break the law. Much of the New Testament narrative addresses this issue, demonstrating the necessity of grace, and motivating us to fully appreciate God’s offer of grace.
1 John 3:5. And ye know that he was manifested to take away our sins; and in him is no sin.
Speaking of Jesus, who did not live a life that demonstrated any mixture of hamartia (or any other of the Greek terms that are rendered sin), we are reminded that His purpose of grace. By forgiving the faithful when they miss the mark, Jesus is described as "taking away” our sins. To take something away is to remove them completely.
The idea of grace, concerning harmartia, is simple: The LORD does not expect us to hit the “bull’s eye,” knowing as we do that to do so consistently is impossible. He does, however, expect that we are aiming at the target: that our lives are characterized by an intentional effort to be obedient to God’s Word in all that we do. As we do so, the work of the Holy Spirit in our efforts replaces the condemnation for sin under the law. When one places their faith and trust in God, they are no longer judged by the law that defines the consequence of hamartia as condemnation. Instead, because of the promise of the LORD, the faithful find complete forgiveness.
1 John 3:6. Whosoever abideth in him sinneth not: whosoever sinneth hath not seen him, neither known him.
The use of the word for sin in this passage refers to one being characterized, or defined, by it. Those who have placed their faith and trust in God do not live lives that are characterized by a pattern of continual sin simply because they have accepted Jesus as their LORD, the one ultimate authority in their life. Their desire is to be obedient to the LORD, so they are aware of what defines godly behavior and seek to follow that model.
However, those who do not know the LORD have no such direction in their lives. Because they do not know the LORD, they have no such desire for obedience. It is as though they are not even aware of the dartboard, and throw their darts in any direction of their choosing.
1 John 3:7. Little children, let no man deceive you: he that doeth righteousness is righteous, even as he is righteous.
John’s purpose in writing includes the exposure of those who are trying to lead people away from the truth of the gospel, noting that is quite easy to spot a fake when you look at the character of their lives. The heretics are not living in obedience to the LORD, and their self-will is evident.
When faced with the decision of who to follow, we are listening to two voices: the one who is trying to deceive, and the Holy Spirit who speaks the truth. It is relatively easy for an adult to deceive a child, and lead them in the direction of their own choosing. John uses this metaphor to encourage the fellowship to look into the lives of those who are trying to influence them. Righteousness under the grace of God is defined as a true faith and trust in Him. One can observe those who are trying to influence the fellowship and make a judgment concerning their true motives by looking at the nature of their lives. If one is not demonstrating unconditional surrender to the LORD, and in its place are promoting their own agenda, they are not demonstrating righteousness.
When we submit ourselves to Christian leadership, it is very important to discern whether submission to that leadership is deserved. Those who deserve positions of faith leadership demonstrate that faith in every facet of their lives as they love others, seek to follow the LORD in obedience; continually pressing toward the mark of the high calling of Jesus.
1 John 3:8. He that committeth sin is of the devil; for the devil sinneth from the beginning. For this purpose the Son of God was manifested, that he might destroy the works of the devil.
Again, in this verse John is referring to a lifestyle that, not only misses the mark, but is not directed to it in the first place, but instead is immersed in the spirit of satan, separated from God, with no interest in God. This type of sin in the life of an individual identifies them with satan, and not with the LORD. Those who live a lifestyle of sin, but desire to appear righteous, will work to normalize their ungodly behavior. Be redefining sin, they think that they can take that which is a sinful lifestyle and make it normative and acceptable by true believers. We see this effort today as truths are turned upside down. Euphemisms replace the true and traditional words used to define behavior, attempting to make them sound noble instead of the wretched sin that underlies the truth. For example, abortion is referred to as “pro-choice;” genocide is called “ethnic cleansing;” one who practices homosexuality is “gay.”
John calls upon the church to see through the heresy and recognize it for what it is: sin that is submitted to satan. Just as one who loves the LORD and has a relationship with Him, those who love sin have a relationship with satan, and serve him. The one that is characterized by godlessness shares the same personality with satan who was also godless from the point of his falling.
The word “manifested” refers to the coming of Jesus Christ. He came as the Son of God to deal with this sin issue.
1 John 3:9. Whosoever is born of God doth not commit sin; for his seed remaineth in him: and he cannot sin, because he is born of God.
The words that are rendered “commit sin” in this passage are literally “sin against God.” This identifies one whose aim and purpose is to life a life of rebellion against the LORD. One who Is born of God, one who has placed their faith and trust in God simply cannot at the same time be defined by the hatred of God. John states that this is because of the work that the Holy Spirit does in the heart of the believer. During times of stress a Christian might become angry with God, just as a child can become angry with his/her father. However, that anger does not change the father’s love for the child, nor does it abdicate the child’s status as a member of the family.
When one is born of God, the LORD puts an eternal hedge of protection around the individual, a hedge that is the purpose, nature, and work of the Holy Spirit. One who has true faith in God will not, and cannot fall away. In order to fall out of grace, one would have to have an authority greater than God; greater than the promise of forgiveness and salvation that is provided through the work of Jesus on the Cross of Calvary.
Circumstances and a Christian’s response to those circumstances can result in a period of rebellions against God, just a child can rebel against his/her father. However, as a child of God, this rebellion does not separate one from God.
1 John 3:10. In this the children of God are manifest, and the children of the devil: whosoever doeth not righteousness is not of God, neither he that loveth not his brother.
Another characteristic that serves to define the children of God is their love for others. This is another means by which one can identify a fraud within the body. The children of God are made “manifest” or known by their over-the-top, unconditional love for others and by a character that demonstrates true faith in the way they respond to the events of life.
Likewise, those who are not children of God are made manifest, or known, by just the opposite. Their love for others is subject to many conditions, usually what best serves their own interest. They do not tend to demonstrate a strong faith when facing the various difficulties of life. These are those who tend to work to control others through bullying and intimidation. John is observing this behavior from the heretics in the early church, and we still may observe this type of behavior in our churches today. The need for wisdom and vigilance is still relevant today as the body of faith needs protection from those who would appear as wolves in sheep’s clothing.
1 John 3:11-12. For this is the message that ye heard from the beginning, that we should love one another. 12Not as Cain, who was of that wicked one, and slew his brother. And wherefore slew he him? Because his own works were evil, and his brother’s righteous.
As the church becomes more and more immersed in world culture, its godless ideas and attitudes continue to influence its development. John calls upon the church to return to the message that it heard, or learned, from the beginning of their knowledge of the gospel. The influence of those in the church who would distract it from its mission have been successful in changing its character, replacing much of the agape love that the church is called to share with the phileo love of this world. The church has been exercising phileo thinking they are practicing agape, and John is reminding them of the difference.
A church that operates on phileo is little more than a social club with a Christian theme, going through the motions, but accepting more and more of worldly culture until it is indistinguishable from it. John uses the example of Cain who was going through the motions when it came to worship the LORD. Like Adam, Cain brought an offering to the LORD. However, unlike Adam, who brought his offering as an expression of worship, Cain brought his with disdain for the LORD who demanded it. Because Cain did not love the LORD, he lacked the agape love that was evident in Adam, and he hated his brother for that distinction. Because of his hatred of his brother and his disdain for the LORD, Cain murdered his bro
This is a difficult metaphor for comparison with the state of the church when it has been influenced by heretics until it has lost its first love. We might be reminded that, it is the church in Ephesus, the church where John spent the last years of his ministry that received the prophetic letter that is recorded in the book of Revelation.
Revelation 2:4-5. But I have this against you, that you have left your first love. 5‘Therefore remember from where you have fallen, and repent and do the deeds you did at first; or else I am coming to you and will remove your lampstand out of its place—unless you repent.
Deception is not an issue that is isolated to the early church of Ephesus. In recent decades we have witnessed a dramatic shift in cultural opinions concerning the LORD, abandoning Judeo-Christian morality at an accelerating pace, with the Church tending to follow along. Failing to recognize heresy and embracing the messages of the heretics, entire denominations are abandoning the Word of God for the Works of the World. Entire denominations of Christianity have lost their first love.
The call of John upon the church to repent is as true today as it was in the church of ancient Ephesus. The church must return to the Word of God, to the gospel that was known from the beginning. The church must turn from the path of Cain back to the path of Abel or it will certainly suffer Cain’s fate: to surrender to the world, continue its descent into sin as it hits further and further from the mark of the prize of the High Calling of Jesus Christ. At some point, like the world, the church will no longer know that the target exists.